Sixth Amendment

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an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is the Sixth Amendment?

The Sixth Amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution that states the rights of a defendant in a criminal trial.

The Constitution of the United States is the document that serves as the  fundamental law of the country. An amendment is a change to something. An amendment to the Constitution is any text added to the original document since its ratification in 1788. The Constitution has been amended 27 times in American history.

The Sixth Amendment helps to ensure that all citizens are treated fairly and equally under the law. It details your rights if you become a defendant in a criminal trial.

For example, you have the right to “a speedy trial.” You shouldn’t spend years in jail for a minor crime, waiting for your trial. You also have the right to a public trial. That means your trial has to be held in an open (publically accessible) court. No secret trials allowed.

You also have the right to “an impartial jury.” That means that in a criminal case a jury, not a judge, decides if you are guilty and the jury should be free from bias as much as possible.

As a defendant in a criminal trial, you would have several other rights under the Sixth Amendment. A defense lawyer can help you understand your rights.

Why is the Sixth Amendment important?

The First Amendment is one of 10 amendments included in the Bill of Rights, a set of 10 amendments added to the Constitution almost immediately after that document was put into law. On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified by the required three-fourths of the state legislatures and added to the Constitution.

Criminal justice has changed quite a bit since the Sixth Amendment was originally written. For example, the Sixth Amendment was originally interpreted to apply only to federal courts, which meant the state courts (where most criminal trials are held) could ignore or restrict any rights guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment.

As the court system over time, so did our interpretation of the Sixth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment did indeed apply to all state (and local) courts, as well as to federal courts. Over the years, the Supreme Court has also decided many other cases that focus on just about every aspect of the Sixth Amendment.

Did you know … ?

The Supreme Court has ruled that when an accused person accepts a plea bargain, they waive their Sixth Amendment rights to a trial by jury and to confront witnesses. However, the accused must voluntarily agree to surrender these rights, and they must be well informed of the consequences that can result from doing so.

What are real-life examples of Sixth Amendment?

The Sixth Amendment applies to all American criminal trials, including trials where the defendant is a celebrity. The 2005 criminal trial of pop star Michael Jackson caused a lot of difficulty for attorneys on both sides, because it was very difficult to find an impartial jury who had never heard of Jackson.

courtroom sketch by Bill Robles / Library of Congress

Unless they study law or have been to criminal court, most Americans are less familiar with the Sixth Amendment than some of the other amendments.

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

According to the Sixth Amendment, a court doesn’t have to tell a defendant what crime they are accused of.

How to use Sixth Amendment in a sentence